A recent decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court allows comfort dogs in the courtroom. The case is Commonwealth v. Purnell, 2021 Pa. Lexis 3610 (Pa. Supreme, Sept. 22, 2021). The case comes from Chester County and involves a 2016 murder. A 13-year-old autistic girl witnessed the shooting and told police that the shooter pointed a gun at her as he fled the scene. Two years later, when she was with another witness to the 2016 shooting, she watched as the other witness was assaulted by the same group responsible for the murder and became concerned for her safety if she cooperated with the police any further.
Before the 2018 trial on the murder, the Commonwealth asked the trial court’s permission for the now 15-year-old to testify with a comfort dog present. The argument was that the girl felt sufficiently safe with the dog to proceed with her testimony. Defense counsel opposed the request stating that the presence of the dog would make the young witness more sympathetic to the jury.
The trial judge allowed the dog to be on the witness stand with the young witness under certain restrictions. Most notably, the dog had to be inside the jury box with the witness and not visible to the jury. When not actually on the stand with the witness, the dog was to be with its handler from the Sheriff’s Department. The jury was told by the judge that the 15-year-old was accompanied on the witness stand by a “service” dog and that the jury should not be sympathetic to the witness because of the presence of the dog or for any other reason.
The defendant was convicted and appealed to Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court, Superior Court. That court affirmed the conviction and sentencing of the defendant.
The state Supreme Court granted review and affirmed the two lower courts. In its supporting opinion, the Supreme Court goes through an analysis of whether the safeguards and precautions taken by the trial judge in any way infringed on the defendant’s right to a fair trial. After that analysis, the Supreme Court found that the defendant was given a fair trial and affirmed the conviction and sentence.
So what does any of this have to do with family law?
Anyone who frequents the Chester County Justice Center with any regularity is aware of Melody the comfort dog, the dog discussed above. She is quite visible walking in every morning and leaving each evening. She has been specifically trained to accompany witnesses to court. The Purnell decision affects jury trials in criminal matters; Melody has always been available in juvenile dependency and child custody cases. While children do not testify per se in custody trials, they are interviewed by the judge, usually in the judge’s chambers; Melody is commonly in those interviews and is always available. The same is true of juvenile dependency cases where the child either meets with the judge or hearing officer or, when necessary, testifies in court.
While in a perfect world it should never happen, sometimes children are called as witnesses in protection from abuse cases. In Chester County, just like in criminal trials, Melody is available. With the Purnell decision, it appears that comfort dogs are now part of the landscape of the court system statewide as it relates to children.